Worship Helps for Reformation

This painting stands where it was originally placed – above the altar of the St. Peter and Paul Church in Weimar, Germany.  The painting was begun by Lucas Cranach (1472-1553) and was completed by his son, also of the same name, in 1555. (To distinguish them, they are called Lucas Cranach the Elder and Lucas Cranach the Younger.)

Cranch allows the worshipers at St. Peter and Paul Church to visualize their justification in Jesus. The doctrine of justification by faith alone in Jesus Christ was at the heart of the Lutheran Reformation.

“This article about justification by faith (as the Apology says) is the chief article [see Apology IV 2-3] in all Christian doctrine. Without this teaching no poor conscience can have any firm consolation or truly know the riches of Christ’s grace. Dr. Luther also has written about this:

If this one teaching stands in its purity, then Christendom will also remain pure and good, undivided and unseparated; for this alone, and nothing else, makes and maintains Christendom. … Where this falls, it is impossible to ward off any error or sectarian spirit [Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, Article III, par. 6].

Unfortunately, the clear doctrine of justification had become clouded over by indulgences, penance and purgatory in the Roman Catholic Church. It had fallen and therefore there were a plethora of errors and deceiving spirits. God used Reformers like Martin Luther and artists like the Cranachs to bring the doctrine of justification in Jesus out into the light. God used His truth to once again set His people free (John 8:32).

There is a great deal of Christian symbolism and significance in Cranach’s painting. Each image alludes to salvation alone in Jesus. In the center background, to the right of Jesus’ feet, Moses is teaching God’s Law contained in Ten Commandments to the people of the Old Testament. To their left, Death – represented by a skeleton holding a spear – and Satan – pictured as a beast wielding a club – are chasing a man into the fires of hell. Together these images express the hopelessness of mankind living under the Law’s condemnation. “Cursed is the man who does not uphold the words of this law by carrying them out” (Deuteronomy 27:26).

“Here we must confess, as Paul says in Romans 5:12, that sin originated from one man, Adam. By his disobedience, all people were made sinners and became subject to death and the devil” [Smalcald Articles, Article 1, par. 1].

It is terrifying being chased by Death and Satan into the pit of hell. However, there is still Good News for all those who look to God’s Son for salvation. When the people of Israel were wandering in the wilderness, they sinned so God caused them to be bitten by snakes. Yet, God in His abounding grace, also allowed them to be spared by looking at the bronze snake mounted on a pole (Numbers 21:4-9). This is illustrated in the background in the right of the painting. Just as the snake was lifted up on a pole, so the Son of Man was lifted up on the pole of the cross (John 3:14).

Above and to the left of the snake scene, is an angel proclaiming the Gospel to a group of shepherds. The angel is holding the words, “Glory to God in the highest,” which was the Christmas Gospel announced to the shepherds outside the little town of Bethlehem on the night of Jesus’ birth (Luke 2:14).

Dominating the painting is Jesus Christ on the cross. Everything else in the painting is illustrating the importance of the sacrifice of Jesus. The painting illustrates the importance of Christ alone. The Reformers stressed the importance of Christ alone. The Scriptures proclaimed the importance of Christ alone.

The first and chief article is this: Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, died for our sins and was raised again for our justification (Romans 4:24-25). He alone is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29), and God has laid upon Him the iniquities of us all (Isaiah 53:6). All have sinned and are justified freely, without their own works or merits, by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, in His blood (Romans 3:23-25). …

Upon this article everything that we teach and practice depends, in opposition to the pope, the devil, and the whole world. Therefore, we must be certain and not doubt this doctrine. Otherwise, all is lost, and the pope, the devil, and all adversaries win the victory and the right over us” [Smalcald Articles, Article I, par. 1-3, 5].

In the painting, Jesus’ side is pierced and blood is flowing onto the head of one of the men to His left. The blood represents Christ’s sacrifice and demonstrates how believers are washed with the blood of Jesus (Revelation 7:14).

John the Baptist is pointing up at Jesus, while at the same time pointing at the lamb at his feet. John is declaring to the world, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).

John is sharing the meaning of Jesus’ death to Lucas Cranach, the artist, who is on John’s left. Cranach represents all who believe in Jesus. “This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe” (Romans 3:22). Cranach is being washed by the blood of Jesus. It is reminiscent of the hymn verse, “Let the water and the blood From thy riven side which flowed; Be of sin the double cure: Cleanse me from its guilt and pow'r” (Rock of Ages, Augustus M. Toplady).

At Cranach’s left is Martin Luther. He has an open Bible in his hand. Luther’s hands and feet are positioned like Moses. However, where Moses was pointing to the Law, Luther is pointing to the Gospel. His Bible is open to John 3:14, where Jesus speaks of how He is the fulfillment of the snake on the pole.

Luther is pointing to another Bible verse that reads, “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:16). John, Cranach, Luther, and all those who believe are able to approach the holy throne of our heavenly Father because of the vicarious and victorious work of Jesus Christ. Having paid for sin, He has defeated death and the devil and now lives to intercede for us.

Jesus is shown doing just that on the left of the painting. He has risen from the dead from the open tomb behind Him. He is pictured standing with His right foot on Death and His left foot on the devil. He is pushing the staff of His victory flag into the monster’s throat. Jesus has conquered mankind’s greatest adversaries! The same adversaries who were chasing man into hell have now been defeated once and for all by Christ’s sacrificial death and glorious resurrection. “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).

Article 4 of the Augsburg Confession expresses the heart of Lutheran teaching this way:
“Our churches teach that people cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works. People are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake. By His death, Christ made satisfaction for our sins. God counts this faith for righteousness in His sight (Romans 3 and 4) [Augsburg Confession, Article IV, par. 1-3].

This is a wonderful summary of the message of the Lutheran Reformation and of its foremost artists, Lucas Cranach the Elder and the Younger. We are justified in Jesus.

 Worship Theme: We are said to be intolerant for calling homosexuality a sin. We are called old-fashioned for saying that premarital sex is wrong. We are labeled as foolish and ignorant for preaching that the world was created in six normal days. What do we expect? God warns us in his Word that we will suffer and be despised for standing firm in the truth of his Word. Just as Martin Luther, let us also stand firm in the truth of God’s Word no matter what the cost! In it alone are found the words of eternal life.

Old Testament: Daniel 6:10-12, 16-23
Now when Daniel learned that the decree had been published, he went home to his upstairs room where the windows opened toward Jerusalem. Three times a day he got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God, just as he had done before. 11 Then these men went as a group and found Daniel praying and asking God for help. 12 So they went to the king and spoke to him about his royal decree: "Did you not publish a decree that during the next thirty days anyone who prays to any god or man except to you, O king, would be thrown into the lions' den?" The king answered, "The decree stands-- in accordance with the laws of the Medes and Persians, which cannot be repealed." 16 So the king gave the order, and they brought Daniel and threw him into the lions' den. The king said to Daniel, "May your God, whom you serve continually, rescue you!" 17 A stone was brought and placed over the mouth of the den, and the king sealed it with his own signet ring and with the rings of his nobles, so that Daniel's situation might not be changed. 18 Then the king returned to his palace and spent the night without eating and without any entertainment being brought to him. And he could not sleep. 19 At the first light of dawn, the king got up and hurried to the lions' den. 20 When he came near the den, he called to Daniel in an anguished voice, "Daniel, servant of the living God, has your God, whom you serve continually, been able to rescue you from the lions?" 21 Daniel answered, "O king, live forever! 22 My God sent his angel, and he shut the mouths of the lions. They have not hurt me, because I was found innocent in his sight. Nor have I ever done any wrong before you, O king." 23 The king was overjoyed and gave orders to lift Daniel out of the den. And when Daniel was lifted from the den, no wound was found on him, because he had trusted in his God.

1. How did Daniel react to the king’s edict?

2. In Romans 13, God commands us to obey the government, yet God blessed Daniel for disobeying the king’s edict. How do we explain that?

Epistle: 2 Peter 1:19-21
And we have the word of the prophets made more certain, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. 20 Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet's own interpretation. 21 For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.

3. Peter calls the Scriptures “light shining in a dark place.” What does that light do? (verse 19)

4. How do verses 20 and 21 speak against those who contend that human writers merely spoke about God but were not messengers from God?

Gospel: Matthew 10:16-23
I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. 17 "Be on your guard against men; they will hand you over to the local councils and flog you in their synagogues. 18 On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles. 19 But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, 20 for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. 21 "Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. 22 All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved. 23 When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another. I tell you the truth, you will not finish going through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes.

5. What does it mean to be “as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves”?

6. Evaluate. We are not persecuted any more as Christians. 

1. The king had issued a decree that his subjects were to pray to no one else but him during the duration of thirty days. Daniel disobeyed that decree and continued to pray to God three times a day, as was his custom.

They didn’t persecute Daniel because of theses nailed to a church door; they didn’t accuse him because of stirring words spoken over a pile of condemned books. They persecuted Daniel because he prayed in his home. Daniel made a bold confession and faithful witness with his knees. No godless king or immutable law would change the homage due to God. No threats, no pain, not even death would change Daniel’s loyalty to the Word of God that called on him to worship the LORD his God only. So Daniel went home and prayed, just as he had done before. He was faithful, even in the face of certain persecution. For the Christian, most persecution doesn’t come from public writings like Luther, but from private acts like Daniel. We live our faith and are persecuted because of it. We don’t face a den of lions, but persecution abounds when we’re faithful to the Word. We lose relationships because of moral purity; we lose promotions because of worship priorities; we lose friendships because we won’t join in sinful talking or walking. Faithfulness to God’s Word in the face of persecution requires trust. God shut the lions’ mouths to answer the king’s question: Is your God able to rescue you? Yes, he is. God shut the lions’ mouths to show his Church of all the ages that God is able to guard and keep his own. You can trust him and be faithful to his Word in the face of any persecution.

2. All earthly authority has been established by God. He commands us to obey earthly governments as his representatives. The only exception is what Peter tells us in Acts 5:29 “We must obey God rather than men!” We are to obey the government in all things except those things that go contrary to the will of God. Daniel pleased God by obeying him rather than the king.

3. It guides us through the darkness of life, and it illumines our hearts by enabling us to understand God’s forgiving love.

4. Both the impulse to write and the message they wrote were given by God.

Peter makes it very clear that no portion of divine Scripture is from private interpretation or a man’s own opinion or a revelation from his own mind. This is the difference between the false prophets of the world and the true prophets of the Lord. The inspired, inerrant, divine Scriptures of God set us apart as Lutherans from all other church bodies, as well.

5. Jesus in this section warns us that we will be persecuted for his name. As we go out into this world it is important that we understand that. We should be shrewd in the way we deal with this sinful world, yet we should never become a part of it. We should remain as pure as beautiful white doves.

6. Although active persecution of Christians does exist still today in some parts of the world, here in the U.S. we are not actively persecuted or thrown in jail. The persecution we suffer is much more subtle. We are made to feel intolerant and foolish for following the teachings of the Bible. Let us always stand firm in the freedom we have been given with the confidence that we too will receive our eternal reward.

Throughout the history of the Church, the story of faithfulness to the Word of God has always been the story of persecution. And rightly so, because Jesus promised it! Who would send defenseless sheep into a world of ravenous wolves? It makes no sense, yet that is precisely the plan that Jesus describes for his Church. It makes no sense—unless you are the Good Shepherd who wants his sheep to utterly depend on him. Our trust in Jesus doesn’t guarantee an absence of persecution, but faithfulness in spite of it. We will witness to the Word of God before brothers, fathers, children, governors and princes. Jesus promised, “All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved.” What comfort that must have been for Martin Luther, whose faithful witness caused him to be expelled from his order, excommunicated from his church, and outlawed from his empire. Before the kings and princes of Europe, Luther gave faithful witness at Worms: “Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen.”

Note: The effect of the Lutheran Reformation of the Church on the history of the world can hardly be overstated. In fact, when US News and World Report ranked the most important events of the last 1000 years, the Lutheran Reformation placed second, right behind Gutenberg’s moveable type printing press. Historians consider the Lutheran Reformation to be of greater significance than the discovery of the New World (number 3).Luther was a monk, a priest, a professor at a little university in Wittenberg, Germany, but he is considered the third most influential person of the last 1000 years (1000 Years and 1000 People, Gottlieb and Bowers). God used his witness and simple faithfulness to the Word to change the world. As heirs of the Reformation, may our witness be as faithful and the effects of our witness be as profound!

Putting your faith into action

A reading from the Book of Concord for Reformation
The divine and the human nature have this personal union with each other in the person of Christ and have the communion resulting from it.  Therefore, this man only, can say with truth, “Where two or three are gathered in My name, there am I among them”.  Also, “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age”.

We do not understand these testimonies to mean that only Christ’s divinity is present with us in the Christian Church, and that such presence does not apply to Christ according to His humanity.  According to His received human nature, He can be present where He wants to be.  He is present especially in His Church on earth as Mediator, Head, King, and High Priest.  This presence is not a part, or only one half of Him.  Christ’s entire person is present, to which both natures belong, the divine and the human.  He has instituted His Holy Supper for the certain assurance and confirmation of this, so that He will be with us, and dwell, work, and be effective in us also according to that nature from which He has flesh and blood. 

Christ promised that He—the man who has spoken with them, who has experienced all tribulations in His received human nature, and who can have sympathy with us, as His brethren—He will be with us in all our troubles according to the nature by which He is our brother. – Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, Article VIII, The Person of Christ (paragraphs 76, 78-79, 87)


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